fbpx

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A coach/teacher/Reno
lounge singer walks into a gym/classroom/convent filled with unmotivated athletes/students/nuns
and, through his/her compassion and the irrefutable power of sport/learning/song,
transforms the washouts into winners. From Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Hoosiers
to Sister Act to Mr. Holland’s Opus, the inspirational-mentor
genre is as undying a cinematic perennial as the disaster movie. I for one am
merely biding my time until the inevitable hybridization — the tale of a dedicated
high school teacher and his class of calculus prodigies who, during the onset
of a second ice age, walk from Philadelphia to Manhattan in order to attend
a math competition. In the meantime, this weekend brings us not one, but two,
new releases pitched at those who may feel the need for a little wind beneath
their wings: Coach Carter, in which Samuel L. Jackson’s title character
bars his star athletes from playing basketball until they improve their GPAs,
and The Chorus, a French import that suggests what Richard Linklater’s
School of Rock might have been like if Jack Black showed up playing Handel
instead of AC/DC.

After breaking box-office records in France last year (besting
all other local productions, and nearly all Hollywood movies too), The Chorus
has made the rounds of the international film festivals (where it picked up
a number of audience awards), and is now getting a healthy promotional push
from its American distributor, Miramax, which clearly sees in it the potential
for a crossover hit. That’s smart thinking, for The Chorus is the kind
of foreign film, like Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino and Amélie
before it, that doesn’t seem foreign at all to most audiences, because it speaks
in a language that obliterates the need for subtitling — that of the sentimental
cliché.

Set primarily in 1949, The Chorus follows kindly music
teacher Clément Matthieu (Gérard Jugnot), as he arrives at a boys’
reformatory and, before the semester is out, manages to turn his class of unruly
wastrels into a well-behaved chorus of heavenly voices. En route, he finds plenty
of time for contretemps with a fussbudget headmaster (François Berléand)
and flirtation with the beautiful mother of one of his students, before arriving
at the inevitable discovery that his heretofore most undisciplined pupil also
possesses the most angelic voice in the class. Beyond this, there are lots of
cute kids and even a Spielbergian framing device in which two former members
of Matthieu’s chorus (one of them now a professional musician) reminisce nostalgically
about their childhood days.

So what’s not to like? Don’t get me wrong: As the son of a primary-school
educator with some four decades of service under her belt, I am hardly averse
to the idea that one teacher really can make a difference. But I would also
argue that the process by which such things happen is rarely (if ever) as simple
(or simple-minded) as most movies about teachers suggest. And The Chorus
is among the more simple-minded of the bunch. Even in the midst of an entertainment
as infectious as School of Rock, though, it’s hard to escape from the
underlying notion that all kids are special and talented and just waiting for
the right person to unlock their potential — a corrosive lie beautifully refuted
by The Incredibles with its conviction that some of us are meant to excel
while the rest of us should learn to embrace our mediocrity.

The Chorus isn’t as guilty a pleasure as School
of Rock
— its director, Christophe Barratier, lacks Linklater’s willingness
to subvert at least some of our expectations — but it gets surprising mileage
from the sensitive performance of Jugnot, a fine French comedian with an inordinately
round face and uncertain gestures that suggest a child at play in a man’s body.
And if I stop short of calling the movie good, that’s not to say it doesn’t
come as something of a relief after countless Luc Besson spectacles, the pomposity
of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, and other, equally disreputable
things that pass as popular French cinema nowadays. The Chorus is sham
art and questionable entertainment, but at the very least it sends you whistling
out of the theater.

THE CHORUS | Directed by CHRISTOPHE BARRATIER | Written
by BARRATIER and PHILIPPE LOPES-CURVAL, inspired by the film A CAGE OF NIGHTINGALES,
written by NOEL-NOEL, RENE WHEELER and GEORGES CHAPEROT | Produced by JACQUES
PERRIN, ARTHUR COHN and NICOLAS MAUVERNAY | Released by Miramax Films | At selected
theaters